The New York Times owes the audience an explanation
Jill Abramson’s departure as the executive editor of The New York Times and Dean Baquet’s appointment as her replacement was abrupt.
Times Company Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told senior editors at a 2 p.m. meeting and the rest of the staff and the world found out around 2:30 p.m.
Abramson had been in the position since 2011, a relatively short time. She won’t stick around for the transition. For now, Times leadership is not answering the question: What happened?
The Times’ own story was cryptic. Reporter Ravi Somaiya wrote, "The reasons for the switch were not immediately clear." In a later version he wrote that Sulzberger declined to directly address the question he said was “'on all of your minds' – the reason for the sudden switch. Citing newsroom management, he said it was not about the journalism, the direction of the newsroom or the relationship between the newsroom and business sides of the paper."
Capital New York reported it this way: "And that's all I'm going to say about it," said Sulzberger, according to two sources who were present. "It was an issue of newsroom management."
That answer isn’t just frustrating to journalists. It’s dismissive of the audience with whom the Times presumes a relationship of trust.
Poynter’s leadership expert, Senior Faculty Jill Geisler, explained that management is often in a difficult position when going through an unexpected and unpleasant parting of ways. But if Abramson was fired, that should be said out loud.
“When personnel changes are made, employers balance two competing responsibilities: employee privacy and customer interest,” Geisler said. “Because The New York Times is at the epicenter of journalism, and aggressively covers changes at the top in other industries, it should aim for maximum transparency in sharing the story behind this apparently swift and surprising move. To do less leaves the door open to speculation ranging from a personal life decision to under performance to palace coup.”
Transparency is important in a trust relationship, especially when something unexpected happens. Transparency is increasingly important for news organizations, because the audience is constantly asking, “Why should I trust you?”
The details will certainly creep out. It’s just a question of whether Gawker, BuzzFeed or The Huffington Post will get them first. Given that reality, it doesn’t make sense for the Times to sit back and concede the story to its competitors.
But even if the details weren’t likely to leak out, hypocrisy can taint a newsroom’s brand. Certainly if this were another private company where there is significant public scrutiny, Times reporters would be aggressively working sources to get the details. Journalists are often counseled to expect the same scrutiny of their lives that they provide to the lives of others. News companies should abide by the same advice.
“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here.